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Book Review

Cold-War Espionage Thriller Brims With the Shocking Truth

CASSIDY'S RUN: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas by David Wise; Random House$25, 256 pages

April 07, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The espionage specialist David Wise has, in "Cassidy's Run," written a fast-paced Cold War thriller with all the elements of a good spy story--mystery, suspense, tangled personal motives, moral ambiguity. And, unlike most thrillers, the book has the advantage of being all true.

Wise spent nearly a decade prying this story from reluctant U.S. government officials, then added to what he learned from Russian sources. Told here for the first time, it is a story of counterespionage by the FBI, code-named Operation SHOCKER, against U.S.-based Russian spies. "In many ways," Wise writes, "Operation SHOCKER was a microcosm of the Cold War. Like so much that happened during that unique and dangerous period, it was conducted in secret. It ran for 23 years, which made it the longest espionage operation of its kind in the history of the Cold War. It was marked by success, failure, triumph and tragedy."

The most personal tragedy of the operation, Wise shows, was the death of two FBI agents in a seaplane crash in northern Minnesota as they were trying to follow a University of Minnesota professor and his wife, who were Soviet spies. But there is, possibly, an even larger tragedy in all of this. Wise writes that in attempting to flush out Russian spies, American officials gave the Russians a formula for a nerve gas that the Americans believed to be unusable and unstable, but which may have proved useful to the Russians or spurred them to accomplish a scientific breakthrough in the production of nerve gas.

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The hero of "Cassidy's Run," the man most responsible for its successes, is a modest, tenacious and evidently most likable U.S. Army first sergeant, Joseph Edward Cassidy. Wise explains that Cassidy was what intelligence services call a "dangle." In 1959, Cassidy, a high school dropout from Pennsylvania who had been drafted into the Army in 1943, was assigned to the Army's nuclear-power office at Ft. Belvoir, Va., near Washington, D.C. With the Army's knowledge, Cassidy was approached by FBI agents and asked if he would play in pickup volleyball games at the YMCA on G Street in Washington, two blocks from the White House and not far from the Soviet Embassy. The agents suspected that the embassy's assistant naval attache was a spy, and they knew he played in those same games.

Cassidy matter-of-factly agreed. The FBI gave him the incongruous code name Wallflower. He began what was to be a new career, for which he had no previous training. He was very cool and very good at it, though, and in the end he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal--in secret. For 23 years, the Soviets believed they had in Cassidy that rarest of prizes, an American Army sergeant who could get them much of the information they asked for. Their requests centered on nerve gas, the subject of intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, but what they wanted was not limited to that.

Cassidy would pass on the Russians' requests to the FBI, which would then consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would authorize the release of classified information to further ensnare the Russians. The Russians paid Cassidy hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, which meant they paid for their own ensnarement, for Cassidy gave the money to the FBI (which spent it on the operation).

In the end, Operation SHOCKER identified 10 Soviet spies. One of them, uncovered by Cassidy, had only one job: Should he receive information about a planned nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, he was to climb an immense rock in New York's Central Park and send a warning radio signal to the Soviet mission to the U.N. Analyzing the Soviets' questions to Cassidy, the Americans learned a good deal about what the Soviets did and didn't know about American strengths and weaknesses. The Americans learned too how the Soviets recruited and ran American agents, and about the Soviets' espionage tactics, from hollow rocks for passing documents to tiny cameras and invisible ink.

The moral ambiguity apparent in "Cassidy's Run" lies in the chance, if not the probability, that during the long secret struggle in the Cold War, the Americans may have inadvertently given the Russians a leg up in the search for ever-deadlier nerve gas. The ambiguity exists too in questions that haunt cold and hot wars alike: When are actions ordinarily regarded as evil to be justified for the sake of a greater good? In "Cassidy's Run," Wise explores the questions with finesse and a strong sense of how to tell a good tale.

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